In the bestseller, Lean In – Women Work and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, talks to women across the world encouraging them to “lean in” instead of being stopped by self-made barriers.
Sandberg tells women, “Don’t enter the workforce already looking for an exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.”
For, Sarah Fisher, IndyCar owner and retired open-wheel driver, she has accelerated throughout her entire career.
Once-upon-at-time you could have described Fisher’s racing team as the “little racing team that could.” This season, Indianapolis based Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR) is doing more than just surviving in the highly competitive world of IZOD IndyCar racing; the team is celebrating the construction of a $2.5 million fully function R&D facility and fan destination, the addition of a second car to the racing team, and a second place finish at the Grand Prix of Baltimore.
Fisher is the heartbeat of SFHR, she has her foot on the gas pedal and is “leaning in” at 220 mph.
She started racing when she was five years old. Her parents met when her mother beat her father in a go-cart street race, but racing in her family was only meant to be a hobby. It wasn’t until Fisher recognized that she had a knack for the sport, and it was something that she could make a living from did she pursue it as a career.
“One thing my dad and mom did, which was amazing, they put me in a lot of different types of cars,” said Fisher to FORBES.com. “So I was able to quickly adapt and transition into a professional series.”
Fisher excelled as a professional open-wheel racing driver. She was the first female in IndyCar Series history to start from the pole position and earn a podium finish. At 19, she became the youngest woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and her nine Indy 500 starts marks the most starts for a woman in the history of the race. But for Fisher, being a woman was never the focal point of her racing career.
“For me it’s about quality, more importantly than being a female. I always had that same thought process my entire career,” Fisher said. “If I am talented and I’m competitive then I deserve a chance to be here just like everyone else. But if I go out there and I’m not competitive, then I should not get that opportunity.”
Despite her own quality versus gender viewpoint, being a female driver is what forced Fisher to adopt race car owner to her resume.
As a driver, she butted heads with an engineer whom she felt was chauvinistic and didn’t want her competing. On several occasions, she discovered parts on the car that were stacked against her, and she wasn’t confident because she couldn’t trust the car or engineer.
“I tried within reason all the different techniques of telling your boss you have a problem, and I couldn’t get anything resolved,” Fisher said. “I was forced to be in this very uncomfortable situation. So that’s why I decided to start this team on the founding principle of having good people working together on an overall mission.”
Together with her husband and general manager, Andy O’Gara, they launched Sarah Fisher Racing (SFR). Fisher noted that her ability to avoid controlling situations and influence those with whom she worked with required writing their paycheck.
In 2008, Fisher welcomed prominent Kansas oilman and serial entrepreneur, Willis E. “Wink” Hartman, as a sponsor. Fisher didn’t find Hartman; he found her.
Shortly before the 2008 Indy 500, Hartman was watching ESPN when he heard the story of Fisher’s attempt to qualify, but a sponsor’s check did not arrive. Hartman recognized her plight and wired the money that she needed to compete. Ultimately, he saw the potential in her American Dream and recognized that what Fisher was up to was much bigger than a one-time sponsorship, so together they formed SFHR in 2012.
In the beginning, Fisher’s race team was small enough that it made sense for her to fulfill the dual role of driver-owner. However, once the team expanded, she stepped away from the driving responsibilities and has since handed them over to Josef Newgarden, currently ranked 14th in the Izod IndyCar Series standings.
“A big part of what we do and why we are able to succeed is because we spend a lot of time doing our homework on the people side to make sure that we assemble the proper team,” Fisher said. “Behind everything that you see, all these great things there are people that we’ve handpicked to work together to elevate our team. That’s a big area of focus for us.”
Another focus of Fisher’s is growing sponsorships. SFHR is primarily backed by Hartman’s sponsorship, but Fisher recognizes from a business standpoint the team needs more. She notes that every team has its own financial plan, and a small team can budget in the $4-5 million range. But budgeting more in the $7 million range allows for assembling the right team, testing, and R&D.
“It’s difficult for a young team to survive in this sport. It’s a challenging environment and difficult to be competitive out of the box,” Fisher said. “And it’s a Catch-22 situation. If you’re not competitive, you don’t get sponsors.”
When asked what corporate sponsor is on her wish list, Fisher replied “Procter and Gamble would be my dream sponsor.” As a mother, wife, and CEO, she recognizes the value in developing partnerships with strong brands that will not only propel her racing team but also means a lot to American households.
Fisher attributes her success to trusting in people and finding balance.
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing,” said Fisher. “If you don’t enjoy what you do you’ll just be miserable, and your family will reflect on that. If you don’t enjoy what it is that you’re trying to achieve then find something else. Enjoy life and live for that.”